For those who may not know, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a 2004 sci-fi/romance film directed by Michel Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman, who won an Oscar for his work. The film follows Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), a couple in a failing relationship who choose to undergo procedures to erase each other from their respective memories. It’s a highly emotional and thought-provoking film with an incredible score from Jon Brion and fantastic cinematography by Ellen Kuras. I would compare it’s concept to something out of the anthology series Black Mirror, so if you’re into that you’ll most likely enjoy Eternal Sunshine.
I highly recommend watching the film before reading on, as it will be chock-full of spoilers, mostly regarding the ending.
The reason why this film sticks out to me, as well as many others, is for its originality and its openendedness. Every element of Eternal Sunshine’s design, plot, characters and especially the ending all feel meticulously thought out and purposeful. From the small details you’ll notice on rewatch (like background objects slowly fading and disappearing just like the memory itself) to the nuances in all of the performances; everything matters and helps develop this world that’s slowly falling apart around all of the characters, including the ones not even directly involved with the main plot, like Mary (Kirsten Dunst), for example.
Because the majority of the film takes place within dreams, I feel some people will write some of it off as being weird for the sake of being weird, but that’s just not the case. Peoples’ dreams are weird, dream-like logic is weird, therefore the dream portions of the film will be at least a little weird and off-putting. This starts off gradually, with Joel seemingly teleporting around from building to building just by walking through doors and then builds and crescendos to the people with smeared, blurry and misremembered faces. It’s truly brilliant stuff that’ll stick with you long after the credits have rolled.
Jim Carrey, in particular, is one of the best parts of this film. He’s just a shy and timid guy who’s going through the biggest heartbreak of his life and you feel the pain with him. It’s always tough to see beloved comedic actors do films like this because they can truly sell both the good and bad times perfectly, Carrey is no exception. When he realizes he’s at the end of his journey, having exhausted all possible places to hide Clementine’s memory, it’s really tough to watch. His line, “I can’t remember anything without you,” is both heartbreaking and true for his situation and always strikes a particularly emotional cord within me. I should also mention that Kate Winslet is fantastic in the film as well, she was even nominated for an Oscar because of it, Carrey’s performance just resonates with me more.
Enough praise, I’m hardly the first to give Eternal Sunshine credit where it’s due. This film sticks with the viewer because every aspect of it is relatable in some way, shape or form. Everyone has been through trauma (or at least will at some point) and has at some point wished they could live without said trauma. Whether it’s the death of a pet, the loss of a child or just an intense break-up with a lot of baggage (all of which are seen to different degrees in the film), there’s always something everyone wishes they could live without the knowledge of. These are all things that’ll be constants in human experience, no matter what decade we live on or planet we live on. Therefore, the film will always be relevant.
The ending is probably the most likely reason for the film’s longevity in film discourse, both in-person and on film Twitter. There’s really only two different ways to interpret the ending, Joel and Clementine either get back together in a hopeless relationship or they go their separate ways knowing their relationship would inevitably come to an ugly end. It’s unmistakably bleak, so, understandably, many try to inject optimism and say they would get back together, but that would undermine the entire purpose of the film’s narrative.
Both characters know by the end that they spent two tumultuous years together prior to their mind wipes, so why would they put themselves through that again even if they can’t remember their initial trauma? The reason they laugh and cry together in the hallway during the film’s final scene is not in happiness, but in acknowledgment they aren’t meant to be, no matter how perfect things may seem in the beginning.
Yes, people are always looking for a love story with both the central characters overcoming the odds to get together, but this film isn’t that. Eternal Sunshine is as much of a love story as the film Marriage Story is about a functioning marriage (which it is not). Eternal Sunshine is a film about learning from your mistakes and learning to live with your trauma, no matter how painful that may be. This is something Joel realizes very early on, spending the majority of the film trying to stop the mind-altering procedure, but it’s to no avail. If you want to erase the bad times with someone, you have to erase the good times too, it comes with the territory.
If the film didn’t click with you, I’d recommend watching it again through a lens of trauma and pain, no matter how hard that may be. Eternal Sunshine isn’t the kind of film meant primarily to entertain, though I do find it entertaining; it’s a film meant to make you think critically about what’s being shown to you, put everything together yourself and then relate your personal experience to that of its subject matter. Maybe it doesn’t quite hit the right place for you yet, but at some point it will; whether that’s in five days or in five years there’s no real way to know. One thing’s for sure though, we’ll all meet in Montauk.